WHAT BEN RATLIFF WON’T SAY

The posting below found its way into the JAZZ LIVES mailbox, thanks to John Herr:

ben-ratliff

January 12, 2009
Talk to the Newsroom:
Ben Ratliff, Jazz and Pop Critic
Ben Ratliff, music critic, is answering questions from readers Jan. 12-16, 2009. Questions may be e-mailed to askthetimes@nytimes.com.
Mr. Ratliff has been a jazz and pop critic at the New York Times since 1996.
Born in New York City in 1968, he grew up in London and Rockland County, N.Y., and studied Classics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Jazz: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings” (2002), “Coltrane: The Story of a Sound” (2007) and “The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music” (2008).
Among hundreds of reviews, reported stories and obituaries in these pages, he has written about Duke Ellington, Slick Rick, Shirley Caesar, Dorival Caymmi, Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, Johnny Paycheck, Cat Power, Slayer, Donald Lambert, the Stooges, Tito Puente, Miley Cyrus, Prince, Gal Costa, Bo Diddley, Bebo Valdes, the Texas A&M University Marching Storm, community singing in East Lansing, Mich., the praise-rock house bands at the High Desert Church in Victorville, Calif., and much else.

Why Isn’t Jazz Audience Bigger?

Q. Why isn’t there more of an audience for “straight-ahead” jazz? Or put in a different way, how come established jazz artists who have been active since the ’50s or early ’60s are given only niche status (or no visibility at all) by the media? Do you feel the media plays a role/responsibiltiy regarding the public awareness of such artists as Freddie Hubbard, Barry Harris, Cedar Walton, for example? Why is it that the general (U.S.) public have no awareness or appreciation of this genre?
— Paul Loubriel

A. Paul: This is a big question. I’ll try to hit some parts of it but I probably won’t answer it to your satisfaction.
In the last 60 years, people almost completely stopped dancing to jazz, and far fewer people grew up with pianos in the house. I think that has a lot to do with why jazz is no longer the popular vernacular art it used to be. When you dance to music (in all ways — partner dancing, stepping, headbanging — just reacting to music with your body) or when you play it, then you own it. A lot of people born since 1960 don’t feel that they own jazz.
Absolutely, the media plays a role in why the average person doesn’t know who Cedar Walton is. But I think the mainstream media — obviously we’re not talking about jazz magazines like Downbeat, which has Benny Golson on the cover this month (a good example of the kind of artist you’re talking about) — doesn’t, by definition, deal with the kind of art that post-bop mainstream jazz has become, which is an art of tradition and very slow refinements.
Mainstream publications, generally, want to run music stories about what’s new or radically different, or about trends. (This could get into a larger issue about the shallowness of the general perception of “news.”) With classical music, they put a lot of stock in premieres or big, notable new compositions. In jazz there are few premieres and few big, notable new compositions. One has to sniff out what’s interesting, however it presents itself: it could be a one-night gig attended by 15 people or a sold-out run.
As for the general public, they’re not buying albums as much anymore, and as much as jazz is a recordings medium at all, it’s still an album art.
I believe that jazz needs more jazz clubs (with small cover charges), because it’s still a social music. The way to know about Cedar Walton in 2009 is to go see him at the Village Vanguard.
By the way, I see that The Times has mentioned Cedar Walton 247 times, in reviews and articles and listings, since 1980. Not too bad.
*****************************************************************************************
Here’s the email I sent to Mr. Ratliff:

I’m happy that the Times has mentioned Cedar Walton 247 times.  But there’s a wide range of creative improvisation going on not too far from the Times’s offices that never gets mentioned: consider Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri at the Ear Inn on Sunday nights (8-11), where the regulars and visitors include Michael Blake, Scott Robinson, Steven Bernstein, and others.  If “the media” define Jazz as no longer newsworthy, then people who love Jazz come to reject “mainstream” media and turn to smaller magazines and weblogs. 
Sincerely,
Michael Steinman

P.S.  Come down to The Ear Inn on a Sunday night and I’ll buy you a drink.

 (I didn’t mean this facetiously: I would stand Mr. Ratliff a second drink or even a Cobb salad if he showed proper appreciation of the music . . . and wrote about it.)

I don’t mean to demonize the media or Mr. Ratliff, but his apparently candid answer has some large omissions in it. 

The standard argument has a good deal to do with the aging of the jazz audience.  Newspapers and magazines rely on advertisting to support themselves, and their research has shown, on whatever evidence, that the 18-35 group spends the most money.  That group has little or no knowledge of jazz, so it stands to reason.

But that argument isn’t entirely true.  Jazz clubs in New York are often full of people who have years to go before they apply for Social Security. 

When anyone goes to the opera, there are many white-haired people in the audience, the house is full, and the Times provides full coverage of, say, a Renee Fleming performance. 

The answer, for better or worse, is money.

Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center take out substantial advertising in the paper (with full-color glossy advertising supplements) and run weekly ads in the Arts section — so there’s a substantial amount of money changing hands.  In addition, when Ms. Fleming has a new CD, Decca or EMI or London takes out a full-page ad in the Sunday Arts section.  

The Ear Inn or Smalls doesn’t have that kind of advertising budget, so I am not surprised that Times critics don’t make their way down to those clubs to hear Kellso or Ehud Asherie. When I was trying to get more publicity for the Cajun jazz club, now demolished, I wrote directly to Nate Chinen, asking him to come down and hear the music — Kellso, John Gill, Kevin Dorn, Eddy Davis among others — and he never responded. 

I said above that I am not surprised.  But I am disappointed in the lack of candor displayed by Mr. Ratliff and others.  When I read a “jazz magazine” and see an ad for Victoria Vocalist on page 8 and a glowing review of Victoria’s new CD on page 9, my innate skepticism springs to life.  Whether the ad came first or the review is not entirely the question, but their proximity removes the possibility of objectivity.  (Only those jazz magazines that either have no advertising or, like Cadence, keep the two entities separate, can aspire to honest objectivity.)

So all I would like someone from the Times to do — it doesn’t have to be Mr. Ratliff — is to say, candidly, “Look.  We don’t review jazz of the type you admire because we haven’t found a way to make sufficient income from it.  We used to be able to make money from it — in the Seventies, when the Newport Jazz Festival concerts took place in New York, they took out ads in the paper, and they were reviewed.  Now we can’t.  Rather than say that we need to review ONLY those artistic performances that pay for themselves, we’ll just say that the audience has changed, people no longer have pianos in their house, and so on.  It sounds so much nicer.”

In the Fifties, when record company executives used to pay disc jockeys to spin their new records on the radio, it was called “payola” and it created a scandal.  The word fell out of use some time ago, but the concept, I fear, is still thriving.  A pretense of journalistic objectivity is not the same thing as objectivity.   

 

11 responses to “WHAT BEN RATLIFF WON’T SAY

  1. A few rebuttals to John Herr’s rebuttal…

    First, while money is clearly an important factor in determining what the Times covers, it is not at all the only factor. At this point, the Times has two reviewers (Ratliff and Nate Chinen) on staff who cover jazz – which is two more than almost any newspaper can afford these days (what with the death of Old Media and everything). There are only so many performances two people can cover, especially when they also have to cover the rock/alternative/country/etc. scenes in addition to jazz (not to mention see their families every once in a while). The Times is a broad publication, you can’t expect them to cover every single event. To give an analogy, the Times doesn’t devote much coverage to Australian Rugby Union, but that doesn’t that mean the paper hates rugby.

    Additionally, the insinuation of payola at jazz magazines is a serious charge, and until Mr. Herr brings more substantive evidence than record companies advertising at Down Beat, it is difficult for me to take that charge seriously. Herr makes a good point that perhaps the Times could do more to cover and promote jazz at the margins, but when he automatically reverts to charges of payola and other malfeasance with little evidence, his critique quickly turns into a sometimes-irrational rant.

    I think the final point of Herr’s e-mail to Ratliff is his best point: “If ‘the media’ define Jazz as no longer newsworthy, then people who love Jazz come to reject ‘mainstream’ media and turn to smaller magazines and weblogs.” We live in an age of diversity and segmentation – so perhaps jazz fans should not expect the New York Times or Washington Post to be the chief promotional machines of jazz. The Harlem rent parties of the thirties and jam sessions at Minton’s in the forties, to pick to historical examples, weren’t covered by the Times, either.

  2. Bravo!

  3. Dear David Hill,
    Let me, first, correct an error of attribution. John Herr sent along Ratliff’s posting, but the email and what follows the email is my work, not John’s — check the signature at the end of the email.
    You end your comment on this “sometimes irrational rant” with a good point: what happens in the art world is sometimes beyond the reach of the established media, but it wasn’t always so. In THE NEW YORKER in 1982, Whitney Balliett was interviewing new as well as established jazz players; at that same time, John S. Wilson was writing about jazz concerts and records in the TIMES. These individual men managed to see and hear a great deal, supported by the corporations they worked for. Perhaps that is because they were asked only to review jazz, not all pop music.
    And you will agree, I think, that a Harlem rent party or a jam session at Minton’s is perhaps a more private event than, say, a concert by the Sidney Bechet Society at Symphony Space or a club date. But this might seem hair-splitting to you.
    I do not think it irrational to ask why the major media pretend that jazz, in general, no longer exists, and especially jazz of a pre-Hard Bop kind. And the review-advertising connection is quite obvious in music magazines of all kinds, although you may not have seen as many examples as I have.
    For me, jazz has more validity worldwide than the players in the Australia Rugby Union, and it would make me unhappy to think that you do not share this viewpoint.
    Sincerely,
    Michael Steinman

  4. Bill Gallagher

    Permit me a rant that I believe is entirely rational. My observation of many writers in print media is that they don’t have a clue about what they are writing about. Rather than being subject experts, they turn to others for their expertise or, worse, write what they they think to be accurate, confusing their own bias with the facts. The best example of this in my own community are the financial/business section writers who have no work experience outside of the newspaper for whom they work. This produces a steady glut of articles based on greedy businesses and businessmen taking the proletariat for a ride. But back to art and jazz. If one is going to write about art, they have to have a passion for it and, hopefully, some expertise to accompany that passion. They might have a personal preference for a specific art form, but they have to be “catholic” in their respect for all forms of art. Those kinds of credentials are difficult to find among those who represent today’s media.

  5. Michael,

    First, allow me to apologize for the rugby analogy and my ill-advised use of the word “irrational” – I clearly should not comment on blog posts until after I have had my morning coffee…

    At the risk of belaboring my point, I just want to clarify two things. The first, with regards to magazine advertising and payola, record company advertising is clearly a conflict of interest, but payola is another beast entirely. I’m goind to give DownBeat and Jazz Times the benefit of the doubt on that one, but I understand why you do not.

    As for the major media pretending jazz does not exist, I too find this disappointing, but I also think that, considering the constant declarations of the death of Old Media, maybe its time we stopped worrying about how the major media outlets handle jazz and fill the void of jazz coverage ourselves (which you and I and many others are doing already). People as a whole are saavy enough to find good jazz if they want to, I think in the end we will all have to live with that… which is surely not the best of all possible worlds, but neither is it a worst-case scenario.

    Keep up the good work, I’ll keep reading.

    -David

  6. Michael: Here is what I wrote when I forwarded Ben Ratliff’s comments (although I agree with your observations, my point was that the jazz that gets most of the ink nowadays aims less at conveying heartfelt emotion and more at technical display): Jazz Wax blogger Marc Meyers made much the same point as Ratliff in a posting a few months ago about the decline in popularity of jazz: once it stopped being dance music in the ’40s, once it was no longer music to which couples could fall in love, the more it became strictly the province of musicians, critics & hipsters, then the less appeal it had to the general public. Not too many fans glide around clubs & ballrooms to sounds of Archie Shepp & Albert Ayler, although fully a quarter of Ben Ratliff’s 100 Most Important Recordings come from the avant-garde. Regular readers of Ratliff’s reviews will see little space devoted to mainstream/swing jazz.

  7. Anyone who doubts that advertising purchases don’t have any influence on reviews should record a CD and submit it to the major jazz magazines. Within a few weeks you’ll receive advertising solicitations… Ask anyone who does jazz media promotion how it works.

    Paper media hasn’t been able to cover the jazz scene effectively in a long time, and in the jazz world it tends to be dominated by writers who are deathly afraid of seeming unhip. I think that has more to do with older jazz not appearing in print than anything. Thank goodness that technology has made print media obsolete. Newspapers are on their way out, which means that we won’t have to sift our way through the snotty jazz criticism that has dominated jazz press for the last sixty years and which, thankfully, is quickly becoming passe in the eyes of younger generations of music lovers.
    The fact that I can tune into Mr. Steinman’s blog and read about the music I care about is a wonderful thing. The fact that I don’t have to get my jazz writing from some guy wearing a tam and a leather vest who thinks that jazz started with Charlie Parker is also a wonderful thing. It’s interesting — the Times may not hate rugby, but I know quite a few jazz critics that hate pre-bebop jazz. The web gives us the ability to tune them out and focus on the writers who know, love and understand the music. What a relief!

  8. payola is rampant in the jazz publishing/pr biz.
    bob rusch—cadence etc

  9. The only print review that sells older jazz is a rave in the Sunday NY Times.

  10. Michael,

    What Ratliff says is very interesting to me , and I have to agree with much of it.

    He notes:

    When you dance to music (in all ways — partner dancing, stepping, headbanging — just reacting to music with your body) or when you play it, then you own it. A lot of people born since 1960 don’t feel that they own jazz.

    I have taken younger people (in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s) to hear ‘live’ mainstream jazz and have sat with many others of the same age while listening to it. What strikes me is that really swinging jazz does not physically MOVE them.
    I have to move when I hear such music, I literally can’t sit still. So, might it be that they do not hear rhythm the way we old timers do; that their appreciation of the subtleties which create the thing we call swing simply do not register with them. Might this be because they grew up listening to music lacking such subtleties? And, kids could dance to R’n’B, but they don’t really dance to rock ‘n’ roll.

    Another thing, I think, is the ensemble sound. The trad front line is truly hard for some young people to listen to. It may be because it is polyphonic, and pop music is essentially monophonic, which may be considered easier for the brain to understand. Eg., Bach fugues are “harder” to listen to than a Mantovani record.

    And time marches on. There is no way a young person can appreciate how revolutionary Charlie Parker’s playing sounded in 1945, since elements of his style have been so thoroughly assimilated by others (think David Sanborn, Gerald Albright, even Kenny G!) in the years since then.

    Next, there is the sound itself. Recordings have had an impact on how we hear music. The medium has shaped the message, doncha know. Modern multitrack recording practice usually produces a highly manicured (meaning unnatural) auditory experience, so listeners to such recordings may find ‘live’ jazz sounds old fashioned by contrast.

    Mainstream swing sounds like cocktail music to most young people. That’s why they talk while the music is playing; it’s background, like wallpaper. To actually follow the melody being created by an improviser demands a certain level of concentration by the listener, and the listening is only rewarding if the listener brings to the experience a context for appreciation.

    I can remember a time when Parker’s playing went right over my head. Then, one day, after finding I could follow and enjoy the playing of Art Pepper, it suddenly clicked, and I could “hear” Bird. So, there is a learning curve before some kinds of music can be appreciated.

    He also says:

    One has to sniff out what’s interesting, however it presents itself: it could be a one-night gig attended by 15 people or a sold-out run.

    The important word here is “interesting”. An artist who is being highly promoted by a record company will probably be considered more “interesting” than some group that’s been around for a while. Fair enough. But, “sniffing out what’s interesting” should not ignore totally an entire genre of jazz. That Peter Ecklund is playing again is genuine news, interesting news to anyone who has followed the New York jazz scene for a while, yet the Ratliff’s of the world will be too busy writing about the latest kid on the block to notice. Similarly, jazz magazines such as JazzTimes TOTALLY ignore the trad scene and the literally hundreds of trad festivals held all over America every year. They are too busy writing about the vast number of recordings issued by more contemporary musicians and singers. Well, the magazines must know where the money is – they presumably wouldn’t ignore a large part of the total jazz audience if they thought they were losing money by doing so.

    Just my 2¢

    Doug Pomeroy
    POMEROY AUDIO
    Audio Restoration & Mastering Services
    Transfers of metal masters, lacquers,
    shellac and vinyl discs & tapes.
    193 Baltic St
    Brooklyn, NY 11201-6173
    (718) 855-2650
    pomeroyaudio@att.net

    “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”
    —Albert Einstein

  11. Dear Doug,

    I appreciate the insights and I second your feelings here. Much more than two cents! However, we both grew up with the idea that it was the job and moral responsibility of “the media,” however defined, to enlighten their audiences. Film critics and “indie music” writers take pleasure in pointing out those performers and performances that the pop mainstream is ignoring — would that the Ratliffs of the world could take notice of players like Peter and Jon-Erik and on and on rather than fawning at the feet of more popular artists who don’t need the attention. Popular music has enough versions of Jennifer Aniston: let’s hear it for the really creative people, especially when they are doing the real work of assuring that jazz doesn’t vanish.
    Thanks and cheers,
    Michael

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s